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'A Real Prospect Of Sanctions': Behind A Judge's Ruling Against Part Of The DA's Sentencing Policy

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L.A. DA George Gascón. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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One of L.A. District Attorney George Gascón's signature reform initiatives took a hit Monday when a judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking the DA from ordering his prosecutors to seek shorter prison sentences in current cases. Gascón had directed his prosecutors to seek the dismissal of almost all three strikes, gun, gang and other so-called sentencing enhancements.

The ruling amounted to a split decision, as Superior Court Judge James Chalfant said Gascón will be allowed to prohibit his prosecutors from filing most sentencing enhancements in future cases.

In citing parts of the decision he disagreed with, the DA said he will file an appeal.

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With regard to current cases, Chalfant agreed with a key argument in a lawsuit filed by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, the union that represents 800 frontline prosecutors: that under state law a prosecutor can only seek dismissal of enhancements based on the circumstances of a specific case, not in response to a policy directive.

By forcing prosecutors to illegally seek the dismissal of enhancements, Gascón has been putting them in danger, the judge said. "Deputy district attorneys have incurred trial courts' ire and need not wait until one of them is sanctioned or disciplined by the State Bar," Chalfant wrote. "There is a real prospect of sanctions and an employee should not be forced to choose between his or her job and complying with the law."

The ruling could affect hundreds of criminal defendants for whom Gascon had sought the removal of sentencing enhancements. The DA has argued enhancements have been a big contributor to mass incarceration and exacerbated racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

'ALMOST UNFETTERED DISCRETION'

In refusing to block Gascón's blanket ban on using enhancements in future cases, Chalfant said the DA "has almost unfettered discretion to perform his prosecutorial duties and the public expects him to evaluate the benefits and costs of administering justice in prosecuting crimes."

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Gascón "was elected on the very platform he is trying to implement and any intrusion on this prosecutorial discretion is not in the public interest unless clearly warranted," the judge wrote.

The ruling makes two exceptions: Chalfant said that under the law, prosecutors must initially file previous strikes under the Three Strikes law, which carry a sentence of 25 years-to-life, and they must file any special circumstance allegations that would result in a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Enhancements for using a gun, being a member of a gang or inflicting great bodily injury during the commission of a crime can add many years to a prison sentence.

Chalfant's order will remain in effect until the resolution of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys' lawsuit. But how a judge decides on a preliminary injunction signals his belief that a particular side will win at trial.

The prosecutors' union hailed the ruling, saying the judge "ruled as we expected in holding that the District Attorney cannot order his prosecutors to ignore laws that protect the public from repeat offenders. This ruling protects the communities which are disproportionately affected by higher crime rates and those who are victimized."

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'SCIENCE AND DATA, NOT FEAR AND EMOTION'

In a statement announcing his intention to appeal, Gascón argued that Chalfant's ruling "requires my office to apply the Three Strikes law contrary to the current practice in Los Angeles County and other jurisdictions across the state." Asserting that he was elected last November because voters want "a system of justice based on science and data, not fear and emotion," the DA said his directives "are a product of the will of the people, including survivors of crime, and a substantial body of research that shows this modern approach will advance community safety."

Summer Lacey, criminal justice director and senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said she was "disappointed" by the ruling. But she was heartened that Chalfant concluded that Gascón can ban most enhancements in future cases.

The case brought into stark relief two key questions facing L.A.'s criminal justice system: how best to address injustices; and whether locking people up for less time will threaten public safety.

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In his directive ordering an end to their use, Gascón argued enhancements have fueled mass incarceration of mostly Black and Brown men, "[t]here is no compelling evidence that their enforcement improves public safety," and that "[i]n fact, the opposite may be true."

"California's mass incarceration problem can be tied directly to enhancements and the extreme sentencing laws of the 1990s," Gascon declared on Dec. 7, his first day on the job.

Many prosecutors believe enhancements help protect the public by putting criminals away for longer periods of time. They often play a key role in plea negotiations; prosecutors use them as a powerful bargaining chip, sometimes offering to drop enhancements in exchange for a guilty plea.

Gascón's policy on sentencing enhancements is just one of many that have outraged much of the law enforcement community. The new DA also has promised to support the early release of up to 20,000 state prison inmates who had their sentences lengthened because of enhancements, and he's moved to end the use of cash bail.

Another key part of his agenda includes reviewing more than 600 police shootings for possible prosecution of the officer or Sheriff's deputy involved.

Gascón ousted incumbent DA Jackie Lacey in last November's election; the race was closely watched by criminal justice reformers around the country. While reformers hailed Gascón's victory and his initiatives, there's been a sharp backlash from his own prosecutors, law enforcement leaders, and even the national conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, which called him a "rogue" prosecutor.